Eastbound L Train, Manhattan

Minor humiliations and idle cruelty.

Illustration: Forsyth Harmon

I’m thinking of a throwaway line in a Noah Baumbach film. It’s Greta Gerwig’s character responding to a man’s compliment. Actually, I don’t think it’s even quite a compliment. It’s more of an admiring comment tinged with intimidation or even admonition  – he says something about seeing her in all these party photos on the internet. She responds by mumbling one of those deflections that’s also a kind of invitation, both a “please stop” and a “please tell-me-more” and this being Gerwig, she does it in a way that communicates both the wretched twist of her anxiety, and her simultaneous exasperation with herself for that anxiety’s ridiculousness: “Sometimes I look like I have fat arms…”

Every woman thinks she has fat arms in party photos. And who cares. Well, women care. The caring in general seems to have fallen so excessively to us, doesn’t it?

I was on an L train, late evening and it had been one of those hot autumnal days that fools a person into summer dressing and then betrays around dusk, when they’re ambushed with darkness and chilly air and are reduced to a small mammal keen to get back to its burrow. I was in a leather jacket, glad not to have been fooled, glad to be swaddled and armored. I was sitting directly across from the young woman beside you who was wearing a flimsy dress with tight thin straps that cut into her flesh. The train was aggressively air-conditioned; it too, had been fooled into summer. I looked at her and thought about how upper arms are a kind of female jugular. A soft spot, literally. A sensitive spot, more figuratively, in this fuckheap world of images – all the tight-tendonned chaturanga guns of white women broadcasting and monetizing their “wellness”. I was feeling bad for this soft-armed woman beside you, who probably felt more naked than cold, but the two came down to the same thing, a vulnerable, mammalian feeling.

You got to inhabit that luxury of being in your body carelessly, without thought. I painted you an every-bro in your jeans and white T and black baseball cap, all of it looking box fresh. It was only when you looked up from your phone and said a casual something to her I had that mild shock of realizing you were together, boyfriend and girlfriend. A subtle recalibration of the dynamics. You looked back to your phone for a few moments. Then, bored, you took a section of your girlfriend’s upper arm fat between your finger and thumb and gave it a pinch and a brisk wiggle. She pulled a face at you, a sad face, but comically so, less a sad face than a sadface, as in the emoji, a cute and tiny distillation of the human expression. A fake sad face to make a little real sadness funny.

Who cares? What a minor humiliation, considering the gross depredations of the last weeks’ news—nothing really, compared to the violent ways so many women are humiliated in and for their bodies. But that was the point, wasn’t it, that the idle cruelty of a guy pinching his girlfriend’s arm fat ran through along the same channels, through the same currents, as the Hollywood producer’s abuse, the president who brags about sexual harassment.

What to do with this. One friend tells me she’s committing to a broader intention: soothe not seethe. I like this. A better use of energy. Something to contribute to a more feminized world, a less seething world. I would have liked to soothe you, with a cardigan, or more realistically, a gentle “fuck him” of an eye roll across the subway car. Instead I just seethed, privately and pointlessly, for the rest of the ride.